Opening Address by President Halimah Yacob at the ASEAN Forum on Women's Economic Empowerment

Mrs Laura Hwang,

Singapore Government Representative for Women’s Rights on the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children

 

Ambassador Barry Desker,

Singapore Representative and Chair of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights

 

Mr Koh Choon Hui,

Singapore Government Representative for Children’s Rights on the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children

 

Your Excellencies

 

Ladies and Gentlemen

 

 

A very good morning to you and to our friends from ASEAN and other countries. Welcome to Singapore.

 

Economic growth in ASEAN has been unprecedented for the past two decades. It is one of ASEAN’s key successes, made possible by a highly skilled and enterprising population. With over 600 million people, ASEAN has the third-largest labour force in the world, after China and India.

 

Since 2000, incomes in ASEAN have been steadily rising, with average annual real gains at more than five per cent. ASEAN’s per capita GDP increased by 70 per cent from US$2,373 in 2007 to US$4,034 in 2016.

 

To ensure that we tap into ASEAN’s full economic potential, we need to harness the potential of all, including and especially our women, who make up half of the region’s population. In fact, according to a UN Human Development Report in 2016, women aged 15 years and older make up more than 50 per cent of the ASEAN population. However, there is still a gender gap, with the average gender gap in labour force participation rate across all ASEAN member states to be 19 per cent.  It is important that we focus our efforts in building an inclusive and enabling ASEAN Community where women are empowered to reach their fullest potential. Empirical evidence from around the world shows that higher educational attainment is correlated with higher labour force participation.  Women should have equal access to education, especially when they are in their formative years; equal access to lifelong learning; equal opportunities to participate in the economy, with equal access to resources, whether it is financial or otherwise; as well as equal opportunities to assume leadership positions in all sectors of society.  

 

In Singapore, we recognise education as a key enabler to level the playing field for all. Our Compulsory Education Act ensures that all children, boys and girls, have equal access to education. As a result, women in Singapore are well-represented at higher levels of education and in subjects traditionally dominated by males.

 

Learning does not just stop at school. SkillsFuture is a movement to provide lifelong opportunities for all citizens, both women and men, to develop their potential to the fullest. Whether you are a young executive or a senior citizen, you can tap on SkillsFuture’s programmes to upgrade your skills.

 

When women are equipped with an education and given the opportunities to harness their potential, they can contribute actively to the economy and are more financially independent.  Research has also shown that businesses that tap into a more diverse pool of talent do better, as they are able to draw broader and deeper insights for better decision-making.

 

I am heartened to see ASEAN working together through the ASEAN Committee on Women (ACW) to increase access of women entrepreneurs, including young women, to finance, credit, markets, skills training, technology and institutional mechanism. While today’s generation of younger women tend to have more opportunities in the marketplace than before, they continue to face challenges such as the glass ceiling and work-life balance. In ASEAN and especially in Southeast Asian societies, there remains a strong expectation for women to meet the dual responsibilities of career and home. More often than not, we see that women rather than men have to make adjustments or even sacrifices in their career to take on caregiving and other responsibilities at home. Societal norms and expectations, especially in Asia, expect women to take on the responsibilities at home.

 

These issues are close to my heart since the days I worked at the National Trades Union Congress, representing Singapore on the International Labour Organisation, and when I was Minister of State for Social and Family Development.

 

For women to progress and contribute at work and in society, we need to have a major cultural shift and change in mindset on how we treat women in employment and the sharing of caregiving responsibilities at home.

 

I am sure Dr Noeleen Heyzer (our former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations) together with her fellow speakers from the ASEAN Committee on Women, the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs’ Network and the NTUC of Singapore will share their views on this subject matter later in the Forum.

 

Fortunately, more women are progressing, entering the workforce, and taking on leadership roles in businesses and in government. But we can do more to help groom women for leadership positions, especially in the corporate sector. The Singapore Council of Women Organisations has a programme called BoardAgender to do just that. Within ASEAN, women’s economic empowerment is also a priority area. The ACW is working on a few projects to help promote women leadership, including the sharing of initiatives and challenges to increase women’s leadership in elected positions, and the sharing of policies and practices to increase women’s leadership in the private sector.

 

Looking beyond women as employees and as corporate executives, we are seeing very capable women reinventing traditional businesses amidst technological disruptions. They are effectively going against the norms of what has been conventionally viewed as male-dominated industries. I recently attended the Woman of the Year Award organised by Her World magazine. The Young Woman Achiever Award recipient is an industrial designer, a field that is not common for women. It is wonderful to see her break the glass ceiling. Some of these women entrepreneurs are here today to share their journey.

 

New industries have emerged from the disruptions, creating new opportunities for all. Providing support for women with growing business aspirations could present significant economic opportunities and raise overall economic participation.

 

Another new trend is the rapidly changing demographic. As we industrialise and change our lifestyles, family units are getting smaller, resulting in reversal in population growth. With a smaller population, this will inevitably impact the pipeline of our labour force.

 

We will also have to grapple with the rapidly maturing workforce in some ASEAN Member States. Governments will have to rethink how to leverage the “silver tsunami”.

 

To tackle the challenges of an ageing population, we must alter our own preconceptions. Women at that age can still be a productive force. Increasingly, companies have begun to look at tapping this invaluable resource, shifting employment practices and promoting lifelong learning for lifelong employability amongst their ageing workforce.

 

Empowering women in the silver economy is rarely discussed. I am glad this forum has dedicated a session to focus on this important issue. Many women do not have savings in our societies. We need to empower them as they age, so that they can be self-reliant and continue to live meaningfully, contributing to society and the economy. This also includes helping them to save during their productive years to prepare them for their retirement. It is also important to have social programmes and policies to support these women.

 

Addressing these challenges requires continuous and concerted efforts from the people, private and public sectors in ASEAN. I am glad to see that the three sectors are well represented at this Forum.

 

In closing, I would like to thank the speakers and moderators in advance for sharing their insights. With your perspectives and experiences, I am confident that this Forum will galvanise the collective wisdom needed to advance women’s economic empowerment for the benefit of all in ASEAN.

 

Thank you.